Rewind the clock to 2017 and, to the Americana leaning parts of the press at least, Holly Macve was the talk of the town. Her debut album Golden Eagle, released via Bella Union, drew acclaim from almost everyone who heard it with its almost entirely acoustic fusion of rootsy Americana and traditional British folk. For the Brighton-based artist who’d never even really toured before, the album opened up a world of opportunities, and with that came a world of new sounds.
The result of those new sounds arrives some four years later, in the shape of Holly’s hugely ambitious second record, Not The Girl. The album is a coming of age record, showcasing a rapid evolution from her previously stripped-back sound. Sitting down to speak to her recently, Holly recalls just how transformative the experience of getting out and playing live was, “I didn’t even really go to that many gigs before my first album. I wouldn’t say I was close-minded, but I had a singular mind with my acoustic sound. Then when I toured with people like Mercury Rev it was such a different sound to what I was used to. It was really inspiring”. That sense of awe and experimentation is evident throughout Not The Girl. The feeling of being free to play with her voice and re-imagine it in new settings breathing new life into her songwriting, “I got to play with the Northern Symphony. I got to see my voice in different contexts and I just really wanted to explore a larger sound. That moment, with the Symphony, was probably that point where I was like, wow, I really need strings on the album”.
The beautiful string arrangements, courtesy of Fiona Brice, best known for her work with John Grant and Placebo, are crucial to the feel of Not The Girl. Although they’re not the only change here, Holly seems to push her music in an array of new directions throughout the album. Holly recalls how on her first record, “I was just doing what I heard on guitar and I didn’t hear the larger picture”. As her live experience has expanded, so has her ambition for the record, “I was very young when the first record came out, so I think I just had so much to learn. Between the first album and this album I’ve absorbed so much music and learnt so much, I really wanted to put all that into this record“.
Making the album was a long process for Holly, and not always a straightforward one as she recalls, “I had the big vision in my head, but I wasn’t sure how to get there”. Holly’s vision only became a reality courtesy of a grant from the Arts Council. Their funding allowed her to explore her vision for Not The Girl, “it was a really cool opportunity to be in control, and choose the people that I wanted to work with”.
While making the album took a long time, getting it out into the world has arguably taken even longer. Back in January last year, plans were already afoot for the record, with a live show at The Lexington, representing the first time Holly had played these new songs with the latest version of her live band. The event was meant to be the start of a year of shows, releases and living her best musical dreams. As with most professional musicians though, Coronavirus threw a spanner in the works, “it was meant to come out before the pandemic. It has been with me for a while, so I’m very excited to get it out there and move onto the next stuff”. I wonder how the delay has affected Holly’s relationship with the album, “in some ways I wish that it had come out a year ago. I feel like I know these songs so well now that sometimes you can become a bit detached from them. Although, it has given me time to get to know them, and know how I want to represent them to the world”. Some tracks on the record have even taken on new meaning over the last year, recent single Eye Of The Storm, with its reminder to not always look for the greener grass elsewhere, being oddly prescient of what was to come, “it feels very relevant to these times”.
Although now based out of Brighton, Holly has musical roots across Britain and Ireland, and she’s quick to credit the influence of her family members. Her Irish grandfather was a classical composer, “the music he wrote was very cinematic, I think that’s probably rubbed off on me. I’d be at his house and he would be practising for something like six hours. The dedication he showed is something that has helped me in my life and made me want to pursue music as a career”. Her mother too is a big influence, a music therapist by profession, she introduced Holly to so much of the music that inspires her, “she listened to a wide variety of things, a lot of old blues records, Big Bill Broonzy and Muddy Waters, stuff like that. As well as Bob Dylan, Gillian Welch, she introduced to me to so much”.
Holly is not Brighton born and bred, but originally from Holmfirth in West Yorkshire, a place synonymous with Last Of The Summer Wine, which Holly describes as “a slightly exaggerated but sort of accurate” representation of the town’s idiosyncratic ways. However, it was after moving to the relatively bright lights of Brighton that Holly began to take her music more seriously, “I moved here I was only 18, and I would go round playing Open mic nights. There was one specific Open mic that I’d go and play every Wednesday. I was writing these songs and it was a really fun way to try them out on people”.
If Brighton was an inspiration on Holly’s songwriting, so to were the fictional worlds she found in films, novels and poetry, “sometimes I’m reading something, and I just have to jot something down”. The record is peppered with literature influences, whether it is the title Not The Girl, lifted from a William Blake poem published as part of his collection Songs of Experience, or Eye Of The Storm, which was inspired by a line in Sylvia Plath’s novel The Bell Jar: “I felt very still and empty, the way the eye of a tornado must feel, moving dully along in the middle of the surrounding hullabaloo”. Holly has recently started to share some of those influences with her excellent podcast for local radio station Slack City, “it came at just the right time when I was going completely mad and needed something to do”. The podcast is a wide-ranging exploration of music from across time and genres, Holly looking at how the sounds we listen to tie into the various elements of social history.
With all the delays, a new sound, and a new record label in the shape of Modern Sky, I wonder if it’s difficult to know what to expect from this album? What are Holly’s ambitions for where Not The Girl could take her? “I just hope that people can connect with it in some way, that’s the main goal. It means so much when someone comes to you at the end of a gig and says it connected with them. That’s what I do it for”. There are few goals nobler than that. To make a connection with another human being, to bring some sense of joy and unity into the world, and leave it a little more understanding than before. Not The Girl feels like a special record, a triumphant celebration of adversity and of fresh starts, one that is just waiting for the world to discover it and fall for Holly Macve’s music all-over again.
Not The Girl is out now via Modern Sky. For more information on Holly Macve visit https://www.hollymacve.com/.